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Web-based tenant screening options are giving commercial property owners new tools to reduce risk. In the past several months, new sites have launched, including TransUnion’s SmartMove and RentGrow Inc.’s ScreeningWorks, and existing ones have enhanced services.

In July, SureDeposit, a Livingston, NJ-based security deposit alternative for the multifamily industry, announced a partnership with Resident Data, ChoicePoint’s Richardson, TX-based resident screening service. SureDeposit gives residents the option to pay a one-time, non-refundable surety bond premium in lieu of posting a traditional refundable security deposit. Prospective residents now receive that option automatically during Resident Data’s resident screening process at communities owned or managed by clients of both companies.

Call it a sign of the times. Industry experts say interest in quick, convenient screening solutions is growing because of increased demand for rental housing. More people are renting because of the deteriorating housing market and more property owners–particularly frustrated homeowners who are unable to sell–are transforming their houses and condominiums to rental properties. With an influx of renters, comes the need for faster ways to approve the renting of an apartment or home, screening companies concur.

Since it can be easier for a property owner to find tenants than force existing ones to leave, it’s important for landlords to look before they lease, including running credit checks on applicants. Under federal law, property owners can legally access the credit reports of potential tenants and pass along reasonable processing fees as long as they have an on-site inspection, a publicly listed business telephone number and a business license.

Commercial real estate professionals describe credit checks as one of the most cost-effective expenditures landlords can make, potentially reducing property damage, improving long-term occupancy, decreasing late payments and even reducing the property owners’ liability for criminal activity.

Credit checks aren’t new. The National Tenant Network markets itself as the nation’s oldest, national tenant screening company. Property owners who join one of the organization’s 25 offices nationwide can run credit checks for modest fees. Property owners can also get credit reports through the National Association of Independent Landlords, Los Angeles-based Fidelity Information Corp.’s TenantAlert and TVS Tenant Verification Service Inc.

What has changed is the number of companies offering tenant screening-and the level of interest from CRE professionals. “While the multifamily industry has benefited from an increase in rental applications, property owners and managers have become more focused on their risk management efforts due to the economic environment,” says SureDeposit President Rich Schreiber. This is due to a surge in rental applications from those beleaguered by foreclosures and compromised credit histories and the fact property owners feel pressured to lower their credit standards to achieve greater occupancy levels.

He said SureDeposit gives cash-strapped renters a lower cost option to a security deposit. In addition, combining it with Resident Data’s tenant screening process makes using it convenient. If a resident selects the SureDeposit option, he explains, the leasing agent instantly generates an enrollment form pre-populated with the applicant’s data, reducing paperwork for both the leasing agent and renter.

“Tough economic times affect every consumer,” says Marv Steier, president of TVS. “It has become quite evident recently with the global financial meltdown that many consumers, including tenants, have overspent and incurred more debt than they are able to handle financially. More and more consumers, who are tenants, will leave landlords stuck with unpaid rental fees and damaged rental property where they are unable to meet the terms of their lease agreement because of heavy debt load and unemployment.”

In August, Chicago-based TransUnion rolled out SmartMove and Waltham, MA-based RentGrow introduced ScreeningWorks. TransUnon describes SmartMove as a tool “to enhance the rental screening process and prevent financial losses.” The option differs from some existing tenant screening services because the prospective renters are not required to provide their Social Security number or credit card account numbers directly to the property owner. Instead, potential renters can log in to MySmartMove.com for a one-time fee of $24.95 and then grant the landlord access to review credit histories or run background checks.

“It takes away the archaic process of providing Social Security numbers to just anyone,” says Mike Mauseth, vice president, business strategy and development of TransUnion’s rental screening solutions, adding that it provides renters with “a new level of confidence.”

ScreeningWorks says it leverages “new technologies that streamline the applicant screening process, deliver convenient access and provide instant results on tenant quality so they can make immediate applicant decisions.”

“Today more than ever, independent rental owners want better, actionable information on their tenant applicants,” says Andrew Cruickshank, vice president of market and product development at RentGrow. “However, many landlords haven’t had access to resident screening.” He said ScreeningWorks gives tenants a pay-as-you-go option with easy to understand results.

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